For most of us, the end of summer means the start of a school year (for ourselves, children, or friends), and enjoying the last of the fresh peaches at the farmers markets. (And the start of a new season of sundry TV shows, flipping windows open and shut at night as the weather oscillates, and so on.)

For consumer-oriented vendors, summer's swan song means it's time to unveil new products intended for the winter holiday gift season. And for the press, it means planning and writing coverage of same.

Usually, the press gets to survey the crop of new and upcoming techno-toys by going to an appropriate trade show, for example, CES, COMDEX (well, not any more...), or Ziff-Davis' upcoming new Digital Life.

Additionally, during these shows, the press often gets a look-see at press- and analyst-only meetings and events, including evening multi-vendor events like those organized by Pepcom, ShowStoppers, and Dave Coursey's "Great Stuff at...", as well as daytime events like Pat Meier's Lunch@Piero's.

For print-pub deadlines in search of stocking-stuffer article fodder, even October--when two technology shows grace New York City's Javitts Convention Center: CMP's TechXNY (nee PC Expo), October 5-7; and the following week, Ziff-Davis' Digital Life--may be too late. This timing presumably factored into Pepcom's organizing a consumer-technology evening event in Manhattan, sans trade show, on Monday, September 20.

Whatever the reasons, Pepcom's Holiday Spectacular provided a good look at a roomful of mostly consumer and professional products--digital cameras and camcorders and related peripherals; MP3 players; handhelds and PDAs; cell phones; notebook computers; and some random doodads and doohickeys.

Some were new, just announced that week or in the previous month; some have been announced and available for a while, although, as Alex Pournelle--attending as one of the people providing technical services--pointed out, it's easy for those who watch industry niches closely to forget that not everybody else keeps as careful an eye on product news.

Here's an overview of what I saw, and what seem to be a few trends, based on chatting with the vendors and surfing their literature. (That is, I didn't try anything, other than perhaps briefly.) Prices cited may be MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price), or estimated selling and/or street price (ES/SP); you may want to check the official MSRP and then price-shop.

Trends: Computer Not (Always) Required to Shoot and Print

Based on seeing a bunch of newish products in several categories from a bunch of vendors, I'm prepared to posit some trends. One obvious trend is that more devices are working together without needing a computer proper as an intermediary.

For example, most, if not all, of the new photo printers I saw on display by Canon, Kodak, Lexmark, and so on, don't need a computer to make prints. Today's printers are likely to include built-in media readers--some mix of Compact Flash, SmartMedia, Secure Digital (SD), MultiMedia Card (MMC), Memory Stick, and so on. (Similarly, a number of portable CD/DVD burners are including built-in readers to let you download your photos to free up your media.)

Some of the printers also include ports to let you connect and print directly from your camera and/or camcorder. Some even let you do it wirelessly, with 802.11, Bluetooth, IR in some cases, to let you download pix and videos to your computer, for example, or even directly from digital camera or camcorder, or cell phone, to printer.

Lexmark Printers
Printers that don't need computers for photo output are becoming far more commonplace, such as this pair of Lexmark printers.

These printers also include a two-or-so-inch LCD screen, plus enough micro-smarts to let you see, select, possibly even lightly edit images, including rotate, zoom, red-eye removal, and then print directly from the media--no computer needed.

Cameras, too, are getting into the post-snapping side of things, like including some degree of image-editing software that lets you correct red eye, light balance, underexposure, and so on, of your digital pictures.

So, for example, with the right phone and printer, you could take and print pictures without having a separate camera or computer. Maybe not the world's greatest, or best-edited pictures, but prints nonetheless.

It goes without saying, of course, that you get more than ever for your money. Some of these things still aren't cheap, but a decent MP3 player starts at around $100 or so, remarkably good digital cameras for a few hundred, and professional-quality digital SLRs have become (if you're a professional photographer) quite reasonable in price.

For example, Ernest Lilley, editor of TechRevu.com and SFrevu.com, who was working at the event taking photographs, commented that the new D2X 12-megapixel, digital single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera brought by Nikon "is a camera that (Nikon) photographers be able to buy now and not worry about upgrading for years." Twelve megapixels, according to Lilley, is comparable to medium-format negatives (bigger than the traditional 35 millimeter ones), and can be used to create 11-by-14 prints.

"And it's a tremendously advanced camera, for example, it can shoot at six frames per second at full resolution, eight at 6MB--it's just a powerhouse of a camera for a reasonable amount of money."

For a professional photographer, the D2X, all tricked out, will run about $4,500 (USD). (Other camera vendors are offering comparable-resolution DSLRs--of course, none of them cheap.)

But, as most of the products being shown make clear, there's a lot of good-quality, full-featured music, photo, and video offerings available this fall in the $100 to $400 range, and even some interesting stuff around that $100 dollar mark.

Sound and Music Products

Portable tape and CD players are, I guess, increasingly passe; MP3 players now offer half a gig of flash RAM in the $200 arena; hard-drive-based players with 5GB aren't much more than that, up to the current gold standard of the 40GB iPod for $399.

And if you got iPod, spend more and accessorize.

Belkin Corporation brought recent additions to its line of iPod accessories, including:

Feeling less spendthrifty, but still want a pocketful of music? GoVideo and Rio are ready to help.

With its new line of Rave-MP MP3 players, GoVideo is going ear to ear against Rio and others in the 18 to 30 Best Buy/Target/CostCo shopping demographic. Fitting in any pocket with room to spare, the Rave-MP line consists of 128MB ($99) and 256MB ($129) flash AMP players, (which can also take SD or MMC memory cards), and 2.5GB ($199) and 5MB ($229) hard drive ARC players.

All Rave-MP models include FM radio, can make FM and voice recordings, and use Windows Media Player 9 as their default jukebox. According to the press release, the Rave-MP players should be available in stores by now.

Mattel Juices It Up, Rio Sounds Off

So far, it seems like most of the MP3 market has been middle-aged professionals and gadgetophiles, and the 15 to 25 or so Gen-whatevers--not surprising, given the price.

Toymaker Mattel is lowering the price bar and aiming at the 9 to 12 year old audience, with its new Juice Box multimedia player.

Priced at $69.99, and slated to be available at retail outlets mid-October, the Juice Box will display color video (animation, movies, television--using a proprietary format, of course) and digital photos on its 3-inch screen, and play MP3s through either the built-in speaker or to headphones.

Add the under $50 MP3 Starter Kit add-on (USB SD/MMC reader/writer, blank 32MB card, and software) and you can download MP3s, photos, and more from your computer.

Not surprisingly, Mattel has partnered with tween-content providers like the Cartoon Network and BMG Music; proprietary media cards will be available with pop-culture content (close to three hours per card)

This could (also) become another popular favorite toy to hack.

Mattel JuiceBox
Mattel JuiceBox Ensemble

RIO Audio, like GoVideo, is upping the ante in the MP3 player wars, with its very elegant, ergonomic Rio Forge flash-based players (128MB for $139; 256MB for $169; 512MB for $199), with an SD slot to increase capacity; and its hard-drive-based 5GB Rio Carbon player ($249).

All these new Rios include FM tuners; the two higher-end Forges can also record directly from their FM. Battery life lasts up to 20 hours per charge or on AAA battery. Rio announced these new Forge and Carbon players in August; they should have already begun shipping.


Rio MP3 Players

Digital Cameras, Video, Printers, and More

Digital cameras and videocams keep getting better--the small ones keep getting smaller, the professional ones have crossed the threshold where they're competing with (or have won the war over) their non-digital cousins. Meanwhile, as noted above, the printers are talking to everything short of the microwave oven.

There were lots of intriguing new cameras being shown, ranging from low-end consumer through "prosumer" and professional.

Canon brought the new high-end version of its PowerShot A-series line of digital cameras, the A95, replacing the A80--five megapixels, 3x optical zoom--$399, available now, plus the A85 ($179) and A95 ($399).

Canon A400 Cameras
Canon A400 digital cameras in a variety of colors.

In its G line, Canon was showing the 7.1 megapixel PowerShot G6 (introduced in mid-August), aimed at photo enthusiasts and advanced amateurs, and available in September (ES/SP $699). Canon also brought its August-introduced 8.2-megapixel EOS 20D digital SLR--about a quarter-pound lighter, and slightly smaller, than its 10D model. The 20D can shoot five frames per second; $1,599 with an 18-55mm lens; $1,999 with a 17-85mm lens, available now.

Casio brought what it claims is the world's smallest digital camera; it includes an optical zoom (2.8x), Casio's EXILIM CARD EX-S100, done by using ceramic lenses-- closed, it's 66 millimeters thick--SD memory cards, MSRP $399, available in October. I'm ready (except for spending the money) to replace the clamshell I've been toting around.

Casio also had its five megapixel EX Z50 (MSRP $449) and EX-Z55 (MSRP $399), which includes a 2.5-inch LCD and an optical viewfinder, and can squeeze up to nearly 400 shots from a battery charge; available in October. One interesting feature in the EX series: the "Business Shot" function, which, says Casio, "take a trapezoidal distorted picture of a projector, white board, document, or business card from a side angle and correct it to a rectangle automatically."

Konica Minolta introduced its new DiMAGE A200 8-megapixel SLR digital camera featuring 7x optical zoom, and "anti-shake, plus VGA/SVGA recording modes. They also introduced two new interchangeable zoom lenses for use with their D-SLRs: the AF ZOOM 17-35mm F/2.8-4(D) and the AF ZOOM 28-75mm F/2.8(D). (No price or availability information given.)

NIKON toted along two new SLRs--the digital D2X Pro, and the film-holding FG, plus three new members of its CoolPix line, the 4800, 8400, and 8800

Film cameras have been getting smarter and more informative for many years now. The FG brings "all the digital improvements" to a film-SLR, like metering, focus, and flash technology, and a display on the back to show shooting information, image data, and so on.

The new CoolPixes include post-shooting (playback mode) features like D-lighting, which lets you retroactively compensate for underexposure, backlighting, insufficient flash, and so on. In red-eye-reduction mode, the camera will fix red-eye before even writing the image.

Pentax's OptioMX4 uses Transformer technology to fold and unfold, and is happy either as a 4 megapixel digital camera, or a 30 frame per second 640 by 480 video recorder--with 10x optical zoom. Shipping in mid-October.


The Pentax Option MX4 records both still images and VGA video.

Printers Get Talky

On the printer side, Canon had its new iP4000R ($229.99), iP5000 ($199.99), iP6000D six-color ($179.99), and iP8500 PIXMA eight-color ($349.99) inkjet photo printers, which, Canon claims, are the first to deliver 1-picoliter ink droplets "for virtually grain-free photographs." Available this fall, the new PIXMA printers sport a variety of features; for example, the iP8500 also includes 802.11g WiFi capability; the iP6000D can print directly from infrared-equipped cell phones.

HP had, among other things, its Photosmart 375 Compact Photo Printer (ES/SP $199), for previewing, editing, and printing 4 by 6 inch photos directly from memory cards, or wirelessly from (some) Bluetooth-enabled PDAs, camera phones, and other devices.

Lexmark brought new no-computer-needed printers ($149 and $199, shipping in early October) that let you define a batch of images to print from a given card to be printed, and then you can go get coffee or do something else, rather than having to wait around. (It even tells you roughly how long the prints will take to complete.)

On the "make it easier to use" front, reflecting our bad habits of leaving pens, paper clips, and so forth on top of scanner/printers, Lexmark's new all-in-one device includes cover guards to keep our office detritus from falling inside the mechanism. The all-in-one printer also includes an inside storage slot for a spare ink cartridge, and the LCD displays "how to change the cartridge" info--useful for us forgetful types.

Final Goodies

If your camera media is full, but you still have room on your iPod, Belkin's got accessories to let you download (side-load?) your pictures, like its Digital Camera Link for iPod w/ Dock Connector, Media Connector for iPod, and Media Reader/Writer.

Kingston is keeping pace with the USB flash drive race, showing its new 256MB DataTraveller Elite, up through its $288 2GB version. (Hint, prices will keep dropping, so if you don't need that much capacity, stick to the sub-$100 offerings, or keep waiting.)

Got digital photos you need to organize, and/or would like to "slideshow"? Ulead's new CD/DVD PictureShow 3 Deluxe makes it easy to do, with features such as the ability to add topical themes (birthday, wedding) and transitions, music, and effects, ready to display on a TV or computer. Priced at $49.99 in stores; $44.99 for downloads.

Ulead also announced a new version of its PhotoImpact Image Editing Software, version 10, a sub-$100 tool for photographers, and graphic and web designers, for $89.99.

So, if you're already starting a shopping list for yourself, friends, or family, and thinking "music or pictures?" there's no shortage of interesting stuff to choose from.